Bringing Games Across International Borders

This past weekend, I hung out with US designer Emily Care Boss and Danish designer Asbjørn Olsen. Asbjørn and Emily had run his excellent short poetic freeform Exile earlier in the weekend (I was at Asbjørn’s table), and we were talking about how it played in the US. Emily and I have both had the flip experience, of having our scenarios played in Denmark at the Fastaval convention.

The games played differently with different audiences. Here are some things the US gamers had trouble with in Asbjørn’s scenario:

  • Exile depends on quiet moodiness. Even at my table of introverts, we had trouble not filling that silence with talking.
  • During play, we generated a lot of extra fictive elements, developing back stories for our characters and actively adding to the fiction. Didn’t hurt the game, but not quite what Asbjørn expected either.
  • The game uses a mechanic where one of the players cuts each scene. During the post-game chatter, we discussed how each of us individually wanted to cut the scenes short, but didn’t do so for fear of stepping on the toes of the group.

Don’t get me wrong–we had a great game, and I think Exile would be a wonderful introduction to this play style for folks from this side of the pond–it’s a nice length 1.5-2 hours, has intriguing mechanics, and generated some great mood. But because we come from a different gaming culture, we did some unexpected things, things that might have dramatically changed the experience if we didn’t have the benefit of Asbjørn guiding us.

This cross-cultural effect goes both ways. In many ways, Emily Care Boss carries the institutional memory of American efforts at cross-cultural experiments with the Danes. Most American designers who have found their way to the Danish freeform convention Fastaval have done so with her guidance, support, and tutelage, from comments on their game blurbs, to tips about what it’s like over there, to gentle comfort when the reviews for a game come in.

A common experience for American game designers who send their scenarios over to the Fastaval: A young, bushy-tailed designer submits a synopsis for a cool game, play tests it a jillion times on this side of the pond until it’s working really well, and then sends it to Denmark, where it is handed off to Danish facilitators and players and it…doesn’t really hit, which is reflected in the discouraging feedback the designer receives. Though there are notable exceptions to this experience, it’s not clear yet when or why those happen.

There are many cultural issues at play here–one of which is the differing cultural styles of critique, but I think the bigger difference is play culture. When a meticulously playtested game doesn’t hit in an international context, I think it’s often a failure to adequately explain play culture rather than a failure of design. These cultural differences come into play whenever games cross national borders, but since I’ve got the most experience with Danish/US translations in the context of Fastaval, I wanted to list a couple differences I’ve seen in play culture, by way of example*:

  • In the US, facilitators adapt to the group on the fly, and it is very common to throw out rules that aren’t working, add or subtract scenes, or alter the characters to fit a particular group of players, sometimes just for the sake of experimentation and not because the game is failing. If you’ve got four women players, maybe the straight couples become lesbians. No biggie. In Denmark, there is more pressure to run the scenario as written, because of course you respect the artistic intentions of the designer, and hacking is less common unless a scenario is really failing.
  • In the US, players push the boundaries of the world to see how much the facilitator can create on the fly. Players habitually generate a lot of fiction for the world. In Denmark, player freedom exists within the space that the game designer has set–the interest is usually in the ins and outs of the journey, rather than in what plot development is happening next, because that is often already set.
  • In the US, if you tell the players to have a fight, they’ll jump right into the scene and get immediately to the fight. In Denmark, they’ll start the scene somewhere else and gradually and subtly build up to it.
  • US players like to talk. Danish players are more comfortable with silence.
  • US players often have some elements of competition to their roleplay, and because of this, it can be harder for them to play towards failure. In Denmark, it is easy for players to make things depressing because the common narrative is usually prioritized.

Games that require players to generate a lot of fiction very quickly are exceedingly common in the US, for example, but not so much (to my knowledge) in Denmark. Games that require players to escalate conflict slowly as a group are common in Denmark, but not so much in the US.

In order for a game to successfully cross borders, it must take these cultural differences into account. It’s one thing when the designer is there to make adjustments, but if all a facilitator gets is a script, then the game designer better make sure the larger cultural assumptions are spelled out. As US designer George Locke put it, a game text is a recipe, “but a recipe doesn’t tell you how to cook.”

As another US designer, John Stavropoulos, pointed out this weekend, the US indie game scene is enjoying a moment of minimalism when it comes to game scripts. Instructions are designed to get one playing as soon as possible, rendering instructions more terse–not a problem if you’re already steeped in the play culture, but harder to understand if you come from outside the culture or the country. Nordic designers often use phrases like “monologue,” “workshop,” and “semi-live” that are only beginning to be understood here, and it makes sense that our concepts of scene spotlighting, etc. might be confusing to folks from outside our own play culture.

A good game generally has the flexibility to accommodate slightly different modes of play, but often the game will play better if it is played as intended, and with players trying to conform to the intended play style.

How To Make a Cultural Translation

If cultural translation can be a problem, what’s the solution? So far as I can see, the two solutions are to design differently or to write more text.

A good example of designing differently is J. Tuomas Harviainen’s The Tribunal, about a group of soldiers in a dystopian future awaiting the tribunal where one of them will be indicted and killed for stealing bread. The Tribunal was written to cross international borders and uses animals as characters. Private Dog has the elements of a dog. Since animals are a fairly universal concept, it’s easy for players to slip into character.

Designing differently is great, but it doesn’t help make the amazing games folks have already written transportable across borders. Writing more would, though. Of course, you want to make sure you are writing the most helpful stuff. Of course, if I was translating a US game for, say, Brazilian players, I’d focus on overcoming those cultural differences, which would mean either observing some of them or asking people more aware than I. On the other hand, instead of focusing on the differences in the text, you can simply try to articulate what exactly your culture does.

I think that at a minimum, writing for cultural translation in this second way means:

  • Describing what the facilitator does in detail. How much freedom do they have to depart from the game text? How do they introduce the play style? What tools do they have at their disposal to affect the narrative of the game?
  • Describing your expectations of the players in detailIs this game competitive or collaborative? How much should the players improvise? What tools do they have to affect the fiction? What sort of experience do you want them to aim for–an emotional affecting one? A fun one?
  • Watch for technical terms and explain them in detail. If any game theorist has ever used any of the words in your text–e.g. “bleed,” “gamism,” “workshop,” “meta-techniques,” etc., you will want to explain those. Likewise, do not assume that your facilitator knows how to prep the players or bring them out of a game.
  • Pretend to be an alien. With instructions, it sometimes helps to defamiliarize yourself with your game. If you were an alien come to earth to observe this game as you intend it to be played, what would you say about the interactions between the players and about the GM’s role? Explain why you are telling the facilitator to do things to help enlist them as a co-designer.
  • Playtest in Another Country. Nothing exposes your assumptions quicker than having someone in another country playtest your game.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the analog game communities as parts of our scene become increasingly international. I’ve been to cons in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and all over the US, and I’ve larped with people from all those places, plus Latvia, Palestine, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, France, the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Czech Republic and more! I want to be open to influence from other play cultures in the US and abroad, but we can only do so if we figure out how to talk to each other.

*The usual disclaimers apply here: I’m just one person and I’ve been to one Danish con. The US is really freaking big and I haven’t personally played every game out there with every play culture in the US. Generalizations always break down at some point, so I’m not trying to say that this is true in all places at all times, just to give a flavor of some of the difficulties in translating play.

This post is underwritten by my thoroughly wonderful Patrons. If you enjoyed it, consider joining the conflagration of awesome people supporting my blog over on Patreon.

2 thoughts on “Bringing Games Across International Borders

  1. While I agree the archetypes in The Tribunal are pretty well known they might not be as universal as they appear, and the way they are perceived and played depends on the cultural context of the players. A player in one of my games was Korean, and it was not until after the end of play that I realized how unfamiliar animals like Stork and Bison were to her. She did a great Dog, but she felt that unfamiliarity limited her options and understanding.

    • So one of the cool things about the Tribunal, IMO is that it can take the weight of the different cultural interpretations of the animal. As for your Korean player, I am wondering whether the issue is the translation–there are varieties of buffalo and storks the world round–or whether there is something within the characters that places a cultural limitation as well.

      I do think that cultural translation is nearly impossible to do with 100 percent accuracy. A Norwegian game played by US players isn’t going to end up the same way it would if played by an all-Norwegian cast. But I do think that properly explaining play style ups the chances that the resulting game will be interesting.